A street food fight has broken out in downtown Santa Rosa between restaurateurs and the growing group of food truck operators they say are eating their lunch.
Owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants are steamed that the city’s has been promoting the mobile food fair known as Munch Mondays, creating additional competition at a time when they can least afford it.
“It’s really a slap in the face to those restaurants who have committed themselves to the downtown in the long run,” said Stuart Patterson, an owner of Flavor bistro on courthouse square.
But the street food vendors say the restaurant owners need to spend less time trying to protect their turf and more time adapting to changes in the market and thinking about the big picture of a healthy downtown.
“I think if they made the best of it, they’d realize that a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Andrew Siegal, co-owner of Dim Sum Charlie’s, a Napa-based business with two trucks, a third in the works, and plans for a total of 12.
Munch Mondays started Jan. 10 with a five mobile kitchens and food carts converging on a city parking lot on Third Street south of the library. To help them get around a city ordinance that requires such trucks to move every 30 minutes, city staff helped organize, promote and permit the event. The trial period lasts eight weeks.
On Monday there were seven vendors and discussions are underway to expand to an evening event in Railroad Square.
The goal was to spice up the city’s food scene, help Santa Rosa take part in a nationwide trend, and draw some needed attention to the downtown scene, said city economic development specialist Raissa De La Rosa.
“If we don’t do that, the downtown can feel stale,” she said.
City promotions also urged people to patronize downtown restaurants, but that fact appears to have been lost on many restaurant owners.
A group of them met two weeks ago to vent, and De La Rosa will attend a meeting of the Downtown Association Tuesday morning to hear their concerns.
There are many reasons to support making Munch Monday a year-around event, including survey results showing it is bringing in people who wouldn’t have eaten downtown otherwise, she said. But no decision has been made about extending the experiment, she said.
“We’re not going to cram this down people’s throats,” she said. “If they don’t want it, if it’s not working, we’ll look at other alternatives.”
City Councilman Gary Wysocky said he has been invited to attend another meeting of restaurant owners on Thursday. He’s not a fan of the Monday event. He said he thinks it should be held in a “restaurant dead zone,” not in the heart of the downtown.
“Good idea, bad execution,” Wysocky said.
The taxes and fees the restaurants pay help provide city services, and it’s not right for the city to subsidize out-of-area businesses to come in and compete with them, he said.
“They should be pissed off. It’s unfair competition,” Wysocky said.
Some restaurant owners appear more upset about the way the event came together than genuinely concerned about competition from an event that lasts two and a half hours once a week.
La Bufa Mexican Restaurant has been downtown for 36 years, and manager Anna Flanders complains that the city didn’t even have the courtesy to inform her family’s business of its plans beforehand.
“How I found out about it was on the radio,” she said.
Flanders said she doesn’t believe that special downtown events necessarily benefit all businesses.
When thousands mob Fourth Street during the Wednesday night market on summer evenings, she said, her business drops noticeably.
“A lot of our regulars will not come in when it’s Wednesday night market,” Flanders said.
Siegal said restaurant owners in Napa were concerned when he started Food Truck Fridays in the fall on private property near the Oxbow Market. But the event has been hugely successful, last week drawing about 3,500 people, he said.
The food truck vendors, most of whom are media savvy and use social networking sites to stay in close touch with customers, have boosted business by cross promoting one another and neighboring restaurants, he said.
The complaints by the restaurants in Santa Rosa strike him as shortsighted and anti-competitive.
“I’m very much a free-market person, and I think the city has responded to people’s desires,” Siegal said.
Jeff Tyler, owner of Chicago Style Hot Dog, likened street food vendors to an iPad — fast, innovative and mobile — and the downtown restaurants to a “PC that hasn’t been upgraded for years.”
He hopes the restaurants will try to learn from what’s going on at Munch Mondays and embrace it instead of trying to block it. He’s talking to people in Railroad Square about an evening event, and if he has to, Tyler said he’ll hold it in a field somewhere.
“But that not going to help the merchants. That’s not going to help the downtown. That’s not going to help anyone,” he said.